In January 1904, Alcover, a priest from Majorca, the founder of Catalan philology,. suggested a Catalan conference on syntax, which he considered crucial for the future of the language. Alcover saw the strongest threat of Castilian on Catalan syntax, being, as he says "the soul of the language". From its beginning, the conference was planned as an international event to promote the prestige of Catalan. 3,000 participants registered for the First Catalan conference, 494 of which voted in the sessions. A truly impressive number, if we compare it to 70 registered participants at the Czernowitz Conference, although about 1,000 attended the folksfarzamlung.
If we look at the invitations to both conferences we see certain similarities from a formal point of view: They consist of (a) a letter explaining the necessity for a language conference and (b) a list of topics to be discussed at the conferences. Although both invitations address basically the same problems, they differ in their approaches: the Catalan one appeals more strongly to the readers and to their contributing to the conference. Furthermore, the Catalan language itself is depicted in the role of a persecuted victim, being separated from its ancient glory.
Besides the question of status and the influence of other languages on Yiddish, the Yiddish invitation to the Czernowitz Conference addresses the lack of standardization and the necessity for establishing some kind of authority. Alcover points out fewer topics, but is more direct and strict in his demands. The Yiddish invitation by Birnbaum displays a more optimistic view: the fate of Yiddish has already changed to its favor, but not sufficiently.
To what can we attribute the different approach? Here we find again the idea of the Catalan language in decline and Yiddish as a rising language. The reason should be sought in extra-linguistic factors in both language groups.
Catalonia represents a fairly confined area. The history of Catalonia, its decline and its domination by the central government in Madrid for centuries made the population receptive to a nationalistic (language) movement. A growing economic power in Catalonia and open support from the Catholic Church strengthened these tendencies which aimed at on "enemy": Castilian.
Yiddish is a language of dispersion without a fixed language territory, spread over Eastern Europe and other continents. The invitation to Czernowitz was written in New York. Jews were citizens of different states and subject to different policies towards minority groups. Furthermore, the economic and political situation of East European Jews did not allow them to rise to a significant position of power. The Jews lacked the kind of support that the Catalans enjoyed from the State Church. Instead of the unifying factor of language which united opposing groups in Catalonia, we find fragmentation concerning a Jewish language. The spectrum ranged roughly from (a) assimilation and adaptation of the co-territorial non-Jewish language by assimilated Jews, over (b) Hebrew, favored by Zionism to (c) Yiddish, favored by Yiddishism. This fragmentation was to become the main point of discussion at the Czernowitz Conference.
In this light, Catalan seems to be in a much stronger position. It might explain the approach by Birnbaum et al. and how the invitation for Czernowitz was formulated. Here we do not find any nationalist ideas, but a supra-national, unifying concept: Yiddish literature.
If we look at the suggested topics for the conferences, the Catalan ones exceed by far in number and detail the Yiddish list. The Catalan invitation emphasizes a linguistic approach to justify the claims. It defines and stresses the position of Catalan as an essential part of Romance Studies abroad as well as inside of Catalonia.
The Catalan list of topics strongly emphasizes linguistic aspects (altogether 21 out of 24 topics), whereas only two points deal with the role of literature, and one with the recognition of Catalan. The Yiddish language does not openly address the question of nationalism or national language. Yet, it might be concealed under the last point of the proposed topics. The distributed topics display supra-national and very practical aspects: the linguistic approach to language and standardization, the role of literature and arts, financial matters concerning the designated promoters of Yiddish, and, finally, the recognition of Yiddish.
Both, Alcover and Birnbaum, stress the role of literature and the press in sensitizing the population to language issues. Alcover seems to be more successful with the ‘media’ which is facilitated by the size of the language territory. The relatively early preparations for the Catalan Conference and the close coverage of every step in the Catalan press and in the Bolleti del Diccionari de la Llengua Catalana (‘Bulletin for the Dictionary of the Catalan Language’) prepared the ground for a ‘catalanized’ and very enthusiastic population.
Both lists agree on the necessity to standardize orthography as step towards recognizing both languages. How can one claim not to speak a jargon, but a language if the written language is (as one of the speakers at the Catalan Conference said) "in a state of anarchy"? Standardization has therefore to go hand in hand with the compilation of a grammar and a dictionary. It is probably no coincidence that at a time of upcoming nationalism and the formation of nation-states, the number of dictionaries, grammars, and dialect studies increased. That is why Alcover stresses in his inauguration speech the necessity for a Catalan dictionary as a symbol of nationality and Catalan language.
So far, the invitations stress the ideal proceedings of both conferences. The outcome of the Czernowitz Conference proved to be different. An important factor of the Catalan Conference was the role of dialects in the framework of the language. The plurality of those dialects was successfully expressed in speeches and numerous papers during the Catalan Conference. Representatives from Valencia, Roussillon, Sardinia, and the Balearic Isles gave inauguration speeches in their respective dialects. Symbolizing the ancient boundaries of the Medieval Catalan Empire, they stressed the linguistic and cultural unity of all Catalonia in contrast to Castilia. But is it not also a way of indicating: if there are dialects, there must also be a unifying language ? It is not surprising that a Catalan, not a Castilian dialect atlas was to be published first on the Iberian Peninsula. As to Czernowitz, speakers came from different Yiddish dialect areas. Yet, they did not come as representatives of designated dialect areas, but as representatives of political organizations, to represent or to achieve political unity among Jews.
Both conferences tried to base their languages and cultures in history as well: Sholem Asch suggested "Dos ibertrogn fun altertimlekhe kulturgiter in der yidisher shprakh". Catalan speakers discussed new publications of Old Catalan texts and how Old Catalan literature could successfully be used for the renaissance of Catalan culture.
As we all know, the Czernowitz Conference was impeded by the discussion of the status of Yiddish as a national language. Dawidowicz summarizes it as follows:
"The excess of ideological debates prevented the conference from acting on Birnbaum’s concrete proposals to standardize Yiddish spelling and punctuation and to compile a Yiddish dictionary." (Dawidowicz 1984: 67).
A similar question was touched at the Catalan Conference two years earlier. Catalan did not have a rival language as was the case with Yiddish and Hebrew. The language question arose within standardized Catalan in relation to its various dialects. The opinions about the role of dialects were quite split in the discussion of a unified literary language. Suggestions to promote the use of dialects as the ‘true life of a language’ were opposed as a step towards anarchy and a loss of cultural identity and plurality. Thus, one participant of the conference favored a neutral standardized language, since each of the various dialects was influenced by its co-territorial languages or was corrupted like the dialect of Barcelona.
The language question, however, did not disrupt the Catalan Conference as it did in Czernowitz. That was due to the common goal of all conference participants of recognizing the Catalan language. The controversy emerged later, after that goal had been reached, when a linguistic dominance, no longer from Madrid, but now in Barcelona, became the cause of complaint after 1979, the foundation of the Principat de Catalunya.
As far as the effects of the Conferences are concerned, we observe the continuation of a stronger interest in the study of both Catalan and Yiddish. Griera’s Catalan Dialect Atlas was a concrete result of the Catalan Conference which stimulated more linguistic research. Although Alcover’s and Moll’s Catalan Dictionary was begun before the Catalan Conference, it underlines these tendencies. As a direct outcome of the Conference we perceive the foundation of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans (‘Institute for Catalan Studies’) in 1907. Although the Czernowitz Conference promoted the formation of an organizing committee for the next Yiddish conference, no institution was ever realized until the foundation of YIVO in 1925.
To summarize, the planned proceedings of both conferences demonstrate several similar goals and techniques which can be applied to any minority language regardless of its history:
(a) standardization through dictionaries, grammars, dialect atlas,
(b) sensitizing the population to language issues and promoting the ideas by the media and literature, etc.
During the course of both conferences a problem arouse specific to any
minority language: consciously selecting a dialect/language as the standard
without offending other dialects as possible claimants. This was only a
small issue at Barcelona, but proved to be a major issue at Czernowitz.